Monitoring apps and tools are gaining in popularity among parents. But are these fancy devices just a substitute for poor parenting?
The daunting prospect of raising children in a digital world where bullying and harassment is increasingly common has seen the market for parenting apps grow. These range from tracking apps that allow parents to locate their children via GPS to internet monitoring tools that give parents a look at what their kids are doing online.
A Babe in the (Virtual) Woods
Emily Harvey* is the mother of 18-month-old Max*. She uses a baby monitoring app called Dormi. “Max is a light sleeper so using the app means I can check in on him without waking him up,” she says.
She originally bought a traditional baby monitor but kept misplacing the receiver. However, since she usually has her mobile phone on hand, having an app made sense.
Despite this easy solution, Emily admits that monitoring apps can encourage parents to go too far. “A mother in my mothers’ group is obsessed,” she says. “We’ll be out socialising without kids and she’ll be watching her daughter on her phone the whole time, even if her husband is home babysitting.”
Harvey also observes a backlash where parents are vocal about not using apps. “They think they’re better parents because they’re not using technology. I don’t think I’m paranoid having this app. You can definitely go too far, but I don’t overuse it.”
Raising Digital Natives
While baby monitoring apps are for the early years, parents of young children are more concerned about stranger danger. Technology such as Moochies, a GPS-enabled kids’ mobile watch with accompanying smartphone app for parents, is designed to give children independence, as well as peace of mind for carers.
Features – such as having preset numbers so the child can only make or receive calls from certain people, and ‘safe zones’ so carers receive alerts when the child strays from set areas (although they can still be located by GPS anytime) – try to strike the balance between safety and helicopter parenting.
Susan McLean, founder of Cyber Safety Solutions, says these apps give a false sense of security. “It’s parenting by remote, and it’s after-the-event stuff – you’re not preventing anything.”
There are also unintended consequences, she adds, referring to apps that track children’s movements. “You might see where your child is but so does the cloud and so does the device that’s gathering the data.”
Deakin University digital media expert Dr Toija Cinque recommends physical supervision for younger children. You can’t prevent children from falling off a swing using an app, she notes. “Another case was someone photographing children in the park. You don’t know whether that image is going to end up online.”
Digital supervision is also important to educate children about online behaviour, as well as manage risks. “There has to be a sense of ‘this device comes with responsibility’,” Dr Cinque says. “Be present. Watch what your child is doing online and who they’re interacting with.”
For older children, apps and tools allow parents to monitor online and mobile activities, including calls, texts and browsing. Some walk a fine legal line.
“I’m all for filters and virus protection, I’m all for limiting exposure like using Google SafeSearch, but some of the monitoring stuff from overseas is borderline illegal here because it fits the definition of a listening device,” says McLean. “Plus you need your child’s passcode to load these apps onto their device. If you have the passcode, you don’t need monitoring software. Have a rule that you can check it once a week.”
All of the problems these tools are designed to address are actually parenting issues, she believes. If monitoring software was the solution, the problems would have stopped by now. Instead, having this software erodes trust.
“I’m not saying children need blanket trust,” McLean points out. “It’s about being able to sit down and talk stuff through with your children and tell them your rules and values. Nothing takes the place of open and honest communication. That’s how we’re going to have success, not by monitoring software.”
The conversation and responsibilities around online activities will naturally change as your child grows. McLean advocates letting your child make mistakes and supporting them. “Putting monitoring devices on them is not the way to go. They need independence and they need to learn – that’s part of growing up.”
Maybe that’s something parents need to learn to let their children do. Even parents need to learn how to be parents too.
* Details have been changed.